By Seamus Mullen. Photo by: Alex Lau.
I’m a chef who pretends to be a professional athlete. I mean, I love riding my bike. Like really love riding my bike, but the reality is that if it were my job to ride my bike, I would probably end up hating it, so for now, I’ll just keep pretending.
Luckily, these two worlds—sports and food—overlap quite a lot. Any time I’m on a group ride with pro cyclists, the conversation always turns to food. Cyclists seem to have an almost unhealthy obsession with eating—they describe indulgent meals with an almost fetishistic, fantastical far away glint in their eyes. I’ve come to recognize that glint as the desire to eat like a “normal” person. Cycling, perhaps more than any other sport, is very weight-obsessed, and with good reason. It’s a mathematical game of numbers: whoever is the strongest and lightest will have an advantage in the mountains, where races are often won and lost.
Unfortunately, this has meant that eating disorders are commonplace in the sport. I’ve heard stories of athletes taking sleeping pills immediately following a long, hard training ride so that they’ll sleep rather than eat. And, for years and years, cyclists were famous for “carb-loading” the night before a race with massive bowls of pasta, then eating sugary gels, bars, and liquid carb solutions throughout a race. And while this is one way to fuel the body, it’s a rather ineffective way, requiring the rider to have to continue to stoke the fires with more carbs and sugar.
Yes, I have been known to roll around with a can of sardines in my jersey pocket from time to time.
Six years ago, faced with a major health crisis I started tooling with my diet, eventually settling on a low-carb, low-sugar, high-vegetable/fat/protein diet. In the transition period, I found myself craving sugars and carbs, particularly during long efforts on the bike, but, over time, as my metabolism shifted to being a fat-burner rather than a carb-burner, my performance, fitness, and recovery time all improved. I started to toy around with different types of foods on the bike, and I found that I responded really well to whole foods like nuts, dried fruit, and cured meats. The problem is that many whole foods are not so convenient to carry in your cycling jersey. (Yes, I have been known to roll around with a can of sardines in my jersey pocket from time to time.) In addition to being hard to pack, whole foods can be tough to eat while riding, especially with your heart beating at 180 beats per minute while gasping for air.
There are some pretty good packaged foods now on the market that cater to cyclists, but, when I have time, I much prefer to prepare my own foods for riding and racing. I usually make some no-bake energy bites: small portable bars made from nuts and dried fruits.
These are easy to throw together, and the flavor combinations can be as creative as your imagination. I don’t recommend almond butter, beef jerky, and dried blueberry together, but if that’s your thing, no judgment! One of my favorite recipes combines pineapple, coconut, and macadamia nuts. It’s rich in fats and proteins and tastes reminiscent of a tropical beach: just the relaxing mental image you need to ease your mind when you’re suffering deep in what cyclists call the “pain cave.”
The sports community is finally coming around to the notion that how we fuel our bodies directly impacts our physical performance. These days, it’s not unusual to hear about professional teams hiring restaurant-trained chefs. But you don’t need a chef to fuel your body for performance. These bars are a good place to start.
Get the recipe for Seamus's favorite on-the-bike snack: Tropical Energy Bars
This story originally appeared on Bon Appetit.
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